A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager: From Philip Nel’s Blog, Nine Kinds of Pie

Through children’s literature we can study how social change and cultural values can determine what is suitable for children, and how books and stories reflect the times in which they were written.
This is a great blog post which illustrates the importance and distinctiveness of children’s literature and its different representations of children’s worlds.


Philip Nel is the author of several books about children’s literature and the director of Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature. He’s also the creator of the website Nine Kinds of Pie, which takes its name from a line in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

He recently published a post that I wanted to share with my readers titled “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager” in which he perfectly expresses all the things I think and feel about children’s books. And, like Nel, I began collecting children’s books as a teenager.

I’ve copied his post below, but I urge readers to check out Nel’s site as well.


Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

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Sailing and magic in 20th century children’s books

Cover of "Swallows and Amazons"

Double Review: Twentieth century novels for Children: Swallows and Amazons and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

Early realist novel Swallows and Amazons (1930) by Arthur Ransome, and modern fantasy novel Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (1997) by J.K.Rowling may seem like unusual novels to review together.  One is seen as prestigious and the other popular.  But what difference does that make to the enjoyment of the two books?

Swallows and Amazons with its maps and compass point locations has a strong sense of place.  Even though the places are given names such as ‘Rio’ rather than their correct names, the reader is aware that the imagined world takes place in the real location of the Lake District. Prestigious realist books often use imagination to stimulate child readers. When swept away in their imagination, the children always slip back into the real world before continuing with their play: “we’ll agree to Rio. It’s a good name”

Swallows and Amazons has a  literary approach to dialogue, plot and characters.  It begins with Roger anticipating a response to a request sent out to their father, one which the reader is not yet aware.  The narrative then takes us back to when they first had the idea to land on “their island”.

When Swallows and Amazons was written it was quite modern for its day to feature gender equality in terms of sailing: the girls were just as good as, if not better than John: “Nancy never looked up, but altered the direction of the boat…” However, the role of the ‘substitute parent’ was adopted not by John, the eldest, but by Susan, who one day woke up “to find the boy pulling at her… [for] ‘something to eat’”

What makes Swallows and Amazons so good?

It pays homage to Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.  It creates a very different story using the same island adventure idea.  These stories help the characters play and imagine they are Robinson Crusoe “It’s Man Friday’s Tent”.

Ransome is credited by critics with developing modern children’s literature by challenging what came before.  His characters use modern language and abbreviations such as “Can’t now” rather than the standard middle class English still used by authors at the time Ransome was writing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is described as fantasy fiction, where the extraordinary can happen and mythical creatures exist such as unicorns.  In children’s literature fantasy allows for greater subtextual meaning. The book has been criticized by some religious organizations for its use of magic yet the story is rooted in older children’s literature making it less controversial that some critics suggest.  The boarding school setting and rivalry for academic excellence and winning the “house cup” give it an old fashioned feel, and fundamentally the story is about good versus evil, with good winning.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

 Rowling avoids complex sentence structures and the story has a straight forward narrative. When comparing it against Swallows and Amazons the structure in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is simple, child-friendly and starts from the beginning, in a normal world, then moving into his extraordinary adventures.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was shortlisted for the 1997 Carnegie Medal, but was not a winner. It did however win the Nestle´ Smarties Book Prize and other awards where children were involved with the judging process, but failed to win any prestigious prizes judged by adults such as The Newberry Prize.  This prize is awarded for books which contribute to literature.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was blocked for not being brilliantly written, but even though the text is not as literary sophisticated as Swallows and Amazons it has proven popular with children. It has re-engaged both boys and girls with reading, which is by a large degree an important contribution to literature.

What makes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone so good?

It pays homage to other great works of literature: The boarding school format from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays; and the wizard school from Jill Murphey’s The Worst Witch. There are also various examples of Lewis Carroll’s influence in the book: From falling through the trapdoor, like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, to the giant chess game, like Alice through the Looking Glass to the riddle with the bottles, like the shrinking and growing potions in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

For child enjoyment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has proven to be very successful.

New Years Resolutions: A poem for children


Don’t want to work any harder
I want more time to play
I’m going to eat more pudding
I’m going to sing all day

Don’t want to make my bed
I want more rumpled sheets
I’m going to play more games
I’m going to eat more sweets

Don’t want to do more reading
I want to watch more telly
I’m going to wear crazy dresses
I’m going to make lots of jelly

Don’t want to be more active
I want my clothes to squeeze
I’m going to just be lazy
I’m going to do what I please

Little Red Riding Hood – The wolf and the leer

English: An illustration from Tales of Mother ...
English: An illustration from Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault; translated and edited by Charles Welsh The caption was “”She met with Gaffer Wolf””, it presumably illustrates the tale “Little Red Riding-Hood” and is found as the frontispiece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Double Review: Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault and Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf  by Roald Dahl

The story of Little Red Riding Hood is essentially a story about an attack on a little girl and her grandmother.  It includes violence, death and sexual connotations (and we read this to kids!).  The vague time and location of ‘Once upon a time…’ signifies to the child that this is a world of fantasy. This means that the child is aware that it is just a story.

Fairy tales began as folk tales for adults but have been used to entertain children since the eighteenth century.  They have been retold and altered according to social and cultural contexts.  In the original folk tale the little girl (unnamed)  is asked by the wolf if she is taking the path of pins or needles – pins representing the temporary binding of a young girl’s garments, and needles representing coming into adulthood, where needles are a permanent bind.  This was originally a tale of initiation as she chose the path of needles.  She later encounters the wolf dressed as her grandmother and gets into bed with him.

In Perrault’s version (1697) the girl who is now nicknamed Little Red Riding Hood, is “the prettiest that had ever been seen”.  Her attractiveness is important because, as is seen later, the story is a warning to women against talking to the wrong kind of men.  She does not escape but instead serves as an example of girls who are spoilt and naive.  She wears red, the colour of passion, which was introduced by Perrault, as a symbol of her ‘sinful’ nature.  She “met old neighbour wolf, who had a great desire to eat her.”  This is the first clue that the wolf is actually a sexual predator.  Perrault turned the wolf into a stand –in for male seducers who lure young women into their beds.

What makes Perrault’s version so great?

– Although this version was not originally intended for children, the repetition the ‘all the better to…’ sequence is a formula that is liked by children.  This has been repeated in every retelling of the story apart from removing some lines such as “the better to hug you with…” for their promiscuity.

– In terms of social anthropology, this is a wonderful example of a 17th century text.  The earliest oral versions of the story include bodily functions “oh, but I’ve also got to make cacka, grandma” and cannibalism “Slut! To eat the flesh… of your grandmother” and also sexual innuendo “undress yourself… come lie down beside me…” which were all removed when Perrault wrote it down.  He altered the story to one that would be suitable for the society he wrote for.

– Let’s face it,  the moral is still relevant: “Children…  should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.  I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

Roald Dahl’s version  (1982) begins with the wolf.  Little Red Riding Hood comes into it later when wolf decides that eating Grandma was not enough.  He makes the decision to wait for her with a “leer” which is the first sign of the wolf’s ‘sleaziness’.   This version is clearly aimed at children; the simple rhyming scheme and the humour make it appealing to children. Yet it is still laced with hidden assumptions about Little Red Riding Hood.  She is described in line 27 as the “little girl in red”.  But later, she is referred to as “Miss Riding Hood” with “no silly hood upon her head”.  In France, to have ‘seen the wolf’ was a euphemism for a girl losing her virginity.  Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood has matured since having ‘seen the wolf’.  She also smiles and takes a gun from her underwear before shooting the wolf dead.  Children only see the humour in this but to an adult she acts quite flirty, and promiscuous.   Dahl has returned the idea of her being a desirable object for the wolf, which is often removed in recent versions. “Compared with her old Grandmamma/ She’s going to taste like caviar.” Her youth makes her more appealing, but it also questions her physical appearance.  Grandma was “small and tough” but by favourably comparing Little Red Riding Hood, one assumes that she would be in comparison, curvy and voluptuous.

What makes Roald Dahl’s version so great?

It is hilarious: “He ran around the kitchen yelping/’I’ve got to have a second helping'”

It is postmodern: “‘That’s wrong!’ cried wolf ‘Have you forgot/to tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?'”

She is kick-ass: “The girl smiles. One eyelid flickers/She whips a pistol from her knickers.”

It is illustrated by Quentin Blake

A Monster Calls – A Novel by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd

  What we are reading – A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

 This book is interesting for two reasons:

  1.   It is the first book to win both The Carnegie Medal and The Greenaway Medal.
  2.   The author adapted a story originally thought up by another author;       Siobhan  Dowd.


 Siobhan Dowd wrote in the young adult/teenage category of children’s literature.    Her books ‘A Pure Swift Cry’ shortlisted for The Carnegie Medal in 2007, and ‘Bog   Child’ which won the award in 2009 both deal with controversial, and social realist issues.  ‘A Monster Calls’ is aimed a little younger than a typical Dowd book – which is fine: – Ness was not trying to be Dowd; he was writing her story in his own style.  The result was a book which is deep, dark and intriguing.


 Ness worked in his own style, on a story he adapted in his own way, and let it go in its own direction. Yet it still managed to capture the heart wrenching drama and tragedy of a Dowd book.  Her books can touch teenagers and adults alike and this story is no different. Yes, the book is about a monster-tree.  But this book about a monster-tree DOES deal with serious issues. This book about a monster-tree CAN be taken seriously by adults. Like any Dowd book, it deals with subjects that are hard to deal with:
 Illness and death: “I can’t stand it anymore!.. I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!”

 Bullying: “Harry had tripped Conor coming into the school grounds… And so it had begun…and so it had continued.”

 Feeling guilt: the need to be punished: “Why didn’t it kill me?..  I deserve the worst.”
 The book also contains three philosophical tales told by the monster-tree.  Each of the three tales has a surprising moral to it.  The conclusions about ethics, intentions, justice and punishment are debatable, and will make the reader stop and think. 
 The story is not only told with Ness’s words, but also with Jim Kay’s pictures.  Each picture, scattered with minute detail is not only a superb piece in its own right, but also compliments and enhances the feel of the story.  The illustrations are thicker and darker when Conor is feeling gloomy; light and minimalist when there is hope in his life.  When Conor is feeling under pressure, the drawings engulf the pages and surround the words creating an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.


 This is a thrilling yet moving read, full of twists and irony.  The way the story is told is excellent.  Children will be enthralled within its world of magic and fantasy,   while adults will accept it as realistic and allegorical. The illustrations are dark and detailed; harsh yet elegant.

I wrote this for the library blog as part of Children’s Book Week (1st – 7th October 2012).  The original blog post can be found here